OpenStax grows in popularity, but overall awareness of OER remains low

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The rate of college faculty using and assigning open educational resources (OER) through OpenStax currently rivals that of most commercial textbooks, according to a new report on the advantages and pitfalls of OER in higher education.

The rate of adoption of textbooks from OpenStax — a nonprofit OER publisher based out of Rice University — among faculty teaching large-enrollment courses is now at nearly 17 percent, according to the report, “Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in Higher Education 2017.”

Teachers who use these openly licensed materials, which are more accessible, more affordable and easily customizable, have found that they are just as pleased as their peers teaching introductory-level courses with commercial textbooks.

“The OpenStax results among large enrollment introductory-level courses shows that OER can be successful,” write the report’s authors, Julia and Jeff Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group. They surveyed more than 2,700 college and university faculty members.

“OpenStax has been able to reach penetration levels equal to most of their commercial competitors, with equal levels of faculty satisfaction, in a very short time.”

Faculty members who required students to purchase traditional textbooks reported an average cost of $125, while those who selected texts through OpenStax reported an average cost of $31 — approximately 75 percent less expensive. OpenStax’s textbooks are free, but it provides optional supplemental materials, like online homework and adaptive courseware, at a low cost.

While OER addresses professors’ top concern of cost, the faculty members still report being worried about the limited scope of OER materials — specifically, the lack of accompanying resources like tests, quizzes and homework assignments.

Perhaps ironically, faculty members say that their students still prefer printed materials over digital ones, even when using OER.

OpenStax is one of the few OER providers that has adapted its adoption and distribution model to meet students’ preferences by providing formatted printed copies of materials for purchase at college bookstores.

“OpenStax provides this alternative in addition to a freely distributed digital version,” the report states.

The report recommends that all OER providers reach out directly to individual teachers in order to be considered and embraced. That’s likely because two-thirds of all faculty members responded that they were the sole decision-maker for new or revised course material, while an additional 22 percent made the decision in a group.

“Faculty have a well-proven model for selecting their teaching materials, and any new player will have to be successful within that model,” according to the report.

OER has seen increased interest from schools across the country in the last couple of years. Many higher education institutions, including American University, use Open Textbook Library for their platform.

The provider, launched in 2014 out of the University of Minnesota, currently offers 425 books from various publishers to its 600 member institutions. These textbooks all have been peer reviewed by university faculty and are accessible online, through students’ course management systems or through PDF documents.

OER has also caught on at the state level. Both Indiana’s and Maryland’s education departments use Amazon’s OER repository, called Inspire. States like Michigan and Pennsylvania are working with OER Commons, yet another provider, to connect school districts with openly licensed, standards-aligned educational materials.

But the report’s authors note that levels of awareness of OER, and how they can be adopted in higher education institutions, are still low. Just 10 percent of faculty reported that they were “very aware” of OER, and 20 percent said they were “aware.”

Familiarity with Creative Commons licensing is also far from being widespread, with 19 percent of faculty reporting that they are “very aware.”

The most pressing challenges involve vetting OER materials and making sure they are high in quality and appropriate for college-level students. Nearly half of faculty members surveyed said there were not enough resources for their subject area, and many also questioned the long-term viability of certain OER materials.

But the authors said there is still reason to be optimistic about the future of OER. Adoption rates are slowly but surely increasing, from 5 percent during the 2015-16 school year to 9 percent for the 2016-17 academic year.

“The awareness and adoption levels may be low, but they also show steady year-to-year improvements,” they write.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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